Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

The eye of a needle…

Every year in the run up to Christmas, I read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol – the book that exemplifies the spirit of Christmas. This year, thanks to the lovely people at Oxford World’s Classics, I have a gorgeous new edition of all five of Dickens’ Christmas books, so for a change I thought I’d read the other four for a little mini-series of…

* * * * *

The Chimes
by Charles Dickens

Old Toby “Trotty” Veck is in his usual place just outside the church-door one cold and windy winter day at the end of the year, waiting and hoping that someone will hire him to carry a letter or a parcel so that he can earn sixpence or a shilling.


Toby “Trotty” Veck
by John Leech

Of material wealth, Trotty has little – just enough to keep body and soul together, though not very securely. He has a daughter, Meg, whom he loves with all his warm heart. And the church bells are like old friends too…

For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.

But, even so, the hard life of the poor people of London makes Trotty wonder sometimes…

…whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.


The original frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

On this day Meg arrives unexpectedly, bringing a rare hot meal for her father – a delicious dish of tripe! She also brings news. Her lover, Richard, has proposed that they should marry on New Year’s Day and they have come to get her father’s blessing. While Trotty is still digesting this news and his tripe, a local bigwig stops to hire him to carry a letter. This man lectures Meg and Richard on how reprehensible it is of them to marry and bring more poor children into the world who will inevitably turn out bad. Then the recipient of the letter, another well-fed rich man, upbraids Trotty for going into the New Year owing a little money, which he had spent on the luxury of food. By now Trotty is convinced the poor are born bad and don’t deserve to live.

But, that night, as he sits pondering over this thought, the church bells seem to be calling angrily to him, and he goes to the darkened church, where he finds the door open…

Illustration by
Clarkson Stanfield

… and climbs up to the top of the steeple.

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl.


Illustration by
Arthur Rackham

* * * * *

Well! This is Dickens in full social justice warrior mode, showing the dire poverty in which so many people lived contrasted with the smug and hypocritical rich, who lecture when a sixpence would work better, who wallow in their own well-fed self-satisfaction as they blame the poor for cluttering up their otherwise charming and tidy world. It has little of the humour of A Christmas Carol – it is dark to the point where it had me sobbing, with starvation and death, men jailed for the crime of trying to stay alive, women driven to prostitution, infanticide and suicide. And while there is a form of redemption at the end, it feels a fairly hollow one to me – the Chimes, by showing Toby how awful life without faith can be, restore his belief that the poor are not doomed from birth to be bad. There are lots of Biblical references and warnings to spouting “Christian” hypocrites who think that lectures on morality are enough to win them a place in heaven. But the underlying message seems confused – both that the rich should do more to alleviate poverty, but that the poor should fall back on faith when there’s no food to be had. I couldn’t help feeling it must have been a long time since Dickens went hungry. There’s also some foreshadowing of his message in the later A Tale of Two Cities – that if the rich don’t deal with the poor…

…afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes—in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”

…then the poor may rise up and deal with the rich.

A happy ending
by John Leech

Powerful stuff! I can see why it’s not as well loved as A Christmas Carol – it feels rushed and a little untidy, the message is not so clear and, despite the happy-ish ending, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling as uplifted as I do when Tiny Tim asks God to bless us, everyone. In fact, I felt angry, depressed and as if I wanted to go and beat a few rich hypocrites over the head with a yule log – and I don’t mean the cake. So I think Dickens pretty much succeeded in his aim…

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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38 thoughts on “Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

    • I know – just shows not as much has changed as we’d have hoped! I couldn’t help wondering what his first audience thought, since I assume they were more likely to be the rich hypocrites than the starving poor…

      • He can’t have offended his audience terribly since he remained popular. Perhaps the middle classes were Dickens’ target readers, made to feel outraged on behalf of the downtrodden and angry with the rich hypocrites after reading this book, but without the power to change anything.

        • Yes, that’s probably right, and though he didn’t have an immediate impact there’s no doubt his fiery defence of the poor became part of the British psyche over the years. Pity it still feels so relevant today though…

    • There have been so many great illustrators of Dickens over the years – I was spoiled for choice! I’m saving A Christmas Carol for last, so that even if the others aren’t quite so good, I’ll be ending on a high note. 😀

    • I agree about the yule log. And I also didn’t know that Dickens had other Christmas short stories. I’m wondering to what extent it was important that this story was set during the holiday season. It’s not like rich people get madder at Christmas and thus see poor people as extra awful.

      • Apparently he did quite a lot of short Christmas stories, but there are five Christmas “books” – novellas, really. I’m guessing none of them were as well done as A Christmas Carol, though, since it’s the only one that has really become a classic. I get the impression that he felt Christmas and the New Year were times when people would be more receptive of his message, plus A Christmas Carol (the first) was so successful I think he came under a lot of pressure to do something for the Christmas edition each year.

          • I suspect even then only top writers made real money out of it – most of them were kinda rich already, I think, to have had the kind of education and time that allowed them to write at all.

            • Not really. His father was bad with money so ended up in debtor’s prison so Dickens had to leave school and go to work in the famous blacking factory, but before that Dickens had a good education, and after his father was left money, his education resumed. He was really only “poor” for about a year, I think. His early childhood was full of books and reading – the sign of a middle-class upbringing, I’d say…

    • There have been so many great illustrators of Dickens over the years, I was spoiled for choice! I hadn’t red this before either though I wasn’t sure about that till I started it. I’m looking forward to reading the other three now, though if they all make me this angry, I might start a revolution… 😉

    • I suspect the four other Christmas books are probably not in the same class as A Christmas Carol which is why they’re not so well known. We had a collection of them in the house when I was a kid, but I don’t think I read any of them except Carol – I certainly hadn’t read The Chimes before!

  1. Dickens was definitely a social justice warrior, FictionFan. And at times I would guess his upset at what he saw came out strongly on the page, as it does here. Perhaps not very festive, but something to think about. You make an interesting point about him not going hungry, too. I think his circumstances impacted him, as they do us all. But I give points for addressing the issues at a time when few did.

    • He certainly was, and I love his writing when he gets angry. But usually it’s more leavened with humour than it is here, and his endings are usually happier, so you still come out of it feeling OK. But I felt poor Trotty was cruelly treated by the Chimes, and didn’t seem to gain much in the end. More realistic maybe, but I couldn’t imagine reading this on Christmas Day and then happily stuffing myself with turkey! 😉

  2. Brilliant review! On the plus side it is always reassuring that we (as a collective) have treasured the better story for our Dickens at Christmas – to be quite honest I was feeling a bit peaky at the dish of tripe, I’m not sure I could have made it through the prostitution and infanticide and hypocrites too!

    • Thank you! 😀 Haha – I remember my mother cooking tripe occasionally – my Dad used to claim to like it. But the rest of us all refused to touch it! Yes, this one was hard-hitting indeed – I thought I was in for a bit of festive fun too!

  3. I’m loving the ‘festive joy’ rating! perhaps I should include that in my short story advent calendar reviews for this year??? and i loved your yule log comment-absolutely hilarious!

    • Ah, fear not! I shall brainwash you eventually! Yes, I love him when he’s in angry social justice mode, but I was a little taken aback since I was expecting a nice uplifting story of redemption for Christmas…

  4. The Chimes is in my collection too. Perhaps I had better read it before The Cricket as you did, so I can end on the warmer note. Thank you for reminding me to get going on Christmas reading!

    • Ah, I’ve already tried to tempt you into reading The Chimes before I read this comment! I have a feeling from the introduction in my collection that one of the other two stories might be quite bleak too – I should be reading it this weekend, and reviewing on Tuesday if I have time…

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